Police pepper spray student protesters, community outraged

At approximately 3:30 p.m. on Friday, police officers marched to the UC Davis Quad to confront student protesters who had set up tents the previous afternoon. After protesters refused to leave, police arrested 10 individuals, nine of which were UC Davis students. Between arrests, a line of protesters linking arms was sprayed in the face with a thick mist of pepper spray.

Videos quickly emerged after the incident happened revealing UC Davis Police Lieutenant John Pike pepper spraying the line of non-violent protesters. Many students not linking arms used laptops and cellphones to film police action. California Aggie photographers were threatened with batons while being pushed and shoved by police officers.

According to Fatima Sbeih, a senior international relations major who attended the protest, students had been sitting peacefully and were not warned about the actions police enforcement used to break apart a circle formed around the encampment.

“We were sitting there peacefully,” Sbeih said. “I didn’t even hear a warning for the spraying, just by the students telling us all to turn around, and then we turned and we were sprayed, just like that. One of the cops was yelling at a guy saying he’s going to spray him in the face and then grabs him in the face and sprays him. They grabbed one of the protesters and sprayed it directly in his mouth. We were there peacefully, the tents were down, they had  no reason to spray us.”

The protesters had received an order from Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi to leave the premise by 3 p.m. Shortly after, a general assembly meeting took place among protesters to decide what actions should be taken.

Muneeza Rizvi, junior sociology and international relations double major, witnessed students standing in solidarity when police enforcements arrived on site.

“Our general assembly meeting didn’t end on a completely decisive note. Some protesters wanted to defend the encampment while others thought packing up and reconvening on Monday might be a better plan,” Rizvi said. “But once folks saw 30 cops clad in full riot gear marching toward peaceful students, an overwhelming sense of loyalty and solidarity seemed to wash over the Quad, and a large group of students — some of whom weren’t initially keen on staying — began linking arms and chanting. I remember uncovering my eyes for a moment to see my friend David’s face dripping with pepper spray. He was facing the sky, practically screaming in agony.”

After the student protesters were sprayed, more students were physically moved by authorities onto the grass area where they were restrained with plastic handcuffs.

“We struggled to keep our ground,” said Evan Loker, a senior comparative literature student who was pepper sprayed. “I felt them pulling at our limbs, began twisting and thrashing us in an attempt to dislodge us. At least one of the officers kept gassing us even while this was happening.”

Around 15 pepper-sprayed students were treated with water and baking soda donated by the ASUCD Coffee House. Volunteers rushed to purchase other anti-acids. Within the hour, the UC Davis Fire Department came to treat those who were still in pain.

“We were lucky to have people there who knew how to treat these injuries,” Loker said on Saturday. “Although my hands and forehead still burned as of this morning.”

The events on Friday came at the end of a week of student protests. The Occupy Davis encampment, in Central Park, has been in effect for over a month, but during an afternoon rally on Tuesday, with an attendance estimated by protesters to be around 2,000 people, the focus shifted to occupying campus buildings.

Students slept overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday in Mrak Hall in opposition to the 81 percent fee hikes proposed over the next four years. Students were evicted from the administration building on Wednesday afternoon and Mrak Hall was closed to business.

On Wednesday morning, buses of students went to the Sacramento state Capitol to advocate against fee hikes. This came partially in response to the cancellation of the UC Board of Regents meeting that had been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday. The meeting has since been rescheduled for Nov. 28.

Others went to San Francisco to participate in Occupy SF. Occupy SF held a non-violent sit-in at Bank of America. Out of the many participants, at least 12 UC Davis students were arrested and cited after refusing to leave the bank.

On Thursday, another general assembly was held and students set up tents on the Quad. Thursday night was active for many participants. Students exchanged information about their legal rights and what they may face if arrested. Potluck dinners fed the crowd.

“The people who participated in the protest were largely students who were standing on university property — that is, student property — in the middle of the day,” Rizvi said. “I don’t understand Katehi’s logic.”

Following police actions on Friday, various faculty members expressed concerns through released public statements and Twitter and Facebook posts.

Nathan Brown, an assistant professor in the English Department, sent an open letter to Chancellor Katehi, calling for her resignation.

“You are responsible for the police violence directed against students on the UC Davis quad on November 18, 2011,” Brown wrote. “As I said, I am writing to hold you responsible and to demand your immediate resignation on these grounds.”

At press on Sunday, a change.org petition calling for Katehi’s resignation had nearly 40,000 signatures.

UC Davis Professor of cinema and technocultural studies Bob Ostertag released an e-mail to students saying that action of linking arms was misunderstood by police officers.

“Throughout my life I have seen, and sometimes participated in, peaceful civil disobedience protests in which sitting and linking arms is understood by both police and citizens as a posture that indicates the clearest possible way available to them, protesters’ intent to be non-violent,” Ostertag said .

UC Davis students and faculty took to Twitter Friday night to spread information about the day’s protest. A video of police using pepper spray on students was widely spread through both Twitter and Facebook, and the event has since been reported many national and international news sources.

Alumni and community members took to the UC Davis Facebook page to express disapproval of campus authorities.

Around 9 p.m. on Friday, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi released a campuswide letter stating that “the group was informed in writing this morning that the encampment violated regulations designed to protect the health and safety of students, staff and faculty. The group was further informed that if they did not dismantle the encampment, it would have to be removed.”

On Saturday afternoon, Chancellor Katehi released a follow up statement mentioning the creation a task force made of faculty, students and staff to review the past week’s events. The letter also mentioned potentially changing the campus policy on protests.

“If our policies do not allow our students enough flexibility to express themselves, then we need to find a way to improve these policies and make them more effective and appropriate,” Katehi said.

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on theaggie.org on Nov. 19 and has been edited to reflect updates. A previous edition of the article stated that students went to Sacramento and San Francisco on Thursday. These events occurred on Wednesday.

More photos can be found here.

Becky Peterson and Hannah Strumwasser contributed to this article. Cao, Peterson and Strumwasser can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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